The Catbird Seat

by James Thurber

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Analyzing Conflict and Types of Humor in James Thurber's "The Catbird Seat"

Summary:

In James Thurber's "The Catbird Seat," the primary conflict is between Mr. Martin and Mrs. Barrows, highlighting themes of power and control in the workplace. Thurber employs various types of humor, including situational irony, as Mr. Martin's meticulous plan contrasts with his mild-mannered persona, and verbal irony, as characters often say the opposite of what they mean, adding layers of wit to the narrative.

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What is the conflict in James Thurber's "The Catbird Seat?"

The conflict in Thurber's "The Catbird Seat" is Mr. Martin's opposition to his co-worker, Ulgine Barrows. Mr. Martin, a staid and steadfast longtime employee of F & S, is disgusted by Mrs. Barrows's annoying behavior (in which she spouts questions such as "Are you sitting in the catbird seat?") and her insistence on reorganizing the company's different departments. Mrs. Barrows is relatively new, but she has the confidence of the boss, Mr. Fitweiler, and the boss seems to listen to everything she says. Mr. Martin knows that his department, filing, is next, and he decides to resolve the conflict by killing Mrs. Barrows. Instead, he loses his inhibitions while drinking at her apartment, and he convinces her that he is going to kill the boss while high on heroin. The next day, the boss hears Mrs. Barrows's story and, thinking she is insane for spreading these rumors about the solid Mr. Martin, fires her, thereby strangely resolving Mr. Martin's conflict. 

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What is the conflict in James Thurber's "The Catbird Seat?"

The primary conflict in James Thurber's short story, "The Catbird Seat," arises between the two very opposite characters of Erwin Martin and Ulgine Barrows. Martin feels that his job--and his general routine--has become jeopardized by the continuing presence of Barrows, whose standing with the boss of the company has given her great influence. Though Martin worries that he may soon be fired from the company, despite his long tenure, it is Barrows' quirky personality that equally irritates. The two characters are polar opposites: Martin is quiet and unassuming--a milquetoast character in nearly every respect. Barrows is loud, annoying and overly colorful--traits that irritate Martin to no end. She so disrupts his life that he decides she must be eliminated. Though he at first decides upon murder as a way out, he eventually comes up with a better plan.

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What is the conflict in James Thurber's "The Catbird Seat?"

There are two major conflicts in the story: Man versus Man and Man versus Himself.

Man versus Man is simply shown through the conflict between Erwin Martin and Ulgine Barrows; Martin, a quiet and reserved man, is shaken up and distressed by the brash mannerisms of Barrows.

The faults of the woman as a woman kept chattering on in his mind like an unruly witness. She had, for almost two years now, baited him. In the halls, in the elevator, even in his own office, into which she romped now and then like a circus horse, she was constantly shouting these silly questions at him. "Are you lifting the oxcart out of the ditch? ... Are you sitting in the catbird seat?"
(Thurber, "The Catbird Seat," jameshilton.com)

These mannerisms are annoying but not critical; Martin only buckles when he becomes convinced that Barrows is going to recommend the elimination of his own department. His original plan is something out of a murder mystery; although he does not intend it, his final solution is far more elegant. Barrows only realizes their conflict at the very end; she is entirely correct in her summation, but over-argued her case to the point where she was not believed.

Man versus Himself is shown throughout Martin's internal dialogue, which is shown as constantly going over his plan and second-guessing himself. He wonders if his choice in planted cigarettes is correct; he worries that someone will see him; he has an imagined deposition in court to justify his desire to murder Barrows. This comes to a head when he finds that he is incapable of following through with the murder, and despite the pressure and strain he formulates a new plan, which ends up working better than the original.

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What is the conflict in James Thurber's "The Catbird Seat?"

The only conflict in James Thurber's story "The Catbird Seat" is between Ulgine Barrows and Erwin Martin. She is a newcomer, but she has a special relationship with the owner Mr. Fitweiler, who is letting her reorganize the entire administrative part of the business. She has her eye on Martin's filing department, and he knows it is just a matter of time before this vulgar, inexperienced woman will want to wreak havoc with his carefully arranged files. She is the protagonist, and he is the antagonist. The conflict might be regarded as largely internal because she has not yet begun interfering with his department, although he knows it is only a matter of time and is frightened, worried, and anxious. It is possible that he could even think of murdering this woman if the situation became critical, but it has not reached that point yet. What he fears is that she will decide that the files are taking up too much space and that many of them are outdated, in which case she will want to have Mr. Fitweiler  order Martin to throw half of them out, creating total havoc with his filing system. If the number of files is drastically reduced, it could mean layoffs in his department. It could even lead to his own dismissal.

What is important here is that Martin wants to nip the problem in the bud. If he waited until the axe had fallen on his department, it would be too late to commit a murder. He would be the prime suspect. The reader is actually led to believe that Martin plans to murder Ulgine Barrows on the night he visits her at her apartment. He is wearing gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints. He brings Camel cigarettes to provide a false clue. Evidently he has actually thought about committing a murder. If it occurs to the reader, it certainly must have occurred to Martin. It might be that he was even planning to commit a murder that night and changes his plan while he is in her apartment. He realizes that what he is doing is so out of character that no one would ever believe it. He exaggerates his impersonation of a wild, reckless, dissolute, potentially homiidal individual, and when Ulgine Barrows reports all this to Mr. Fitweiler the next morning, her employer, who has known Martin for many years, naturally thinks she must have been having hallucinations.

"The Catbird Seat" is a good introduction to the works of James Thurber, whose stories, essays, and cartoons were among the best things ever published in the New Yorker. Thurber and E. B. White were of the greatest importance in establishing the tone and high quality of that famous humor magazine. He writes about it in his book The Years with Ross. Harold Ross was the founding editor of the New Yorker and a very colorful and eccentric man who introduced many outstanding writers to the reading public.

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What is the conflict in James Thurber's "The Catbird Seat?"

The main theme of this beguiling (for Mrs. Barrows ...) short story is a variation on a general "men and women" theme. We'll find the theme by briefly examining the facts of the story of Mr. Martin.

  • Mr. Martin is orderly, predictable, effective, respectful and mild in deportment.
  • Mrs. Barrows is loud, unruly, disruptive, disrespectful and aggressive in deportment.
  • Mrs. Barrows annoys Mr. Martin personally.
  • Mrs. Barrows enrages Mr. Martin for her wanton destruction of the orderly operation of F & S.
  • Many employees have walked out and abandoned F & S because of Mrs. Barrows: "After Miss Tyson, Mr. Brundage, and Mr. Bartlett had been fired and Mr. Munson had taken his hat and stalked out,..."
  • Mr. Martin sees that his own department is the next to suffer under her misguided hand of mismanagement: "Mr. Martin could no longer doubt that the finger was on his beloved department. Her pickaxe was on the upswing,..."
  • Mr. Martin is in conflict with Mrs. Barrows and, according to the material disintegration in the effective operation of F & S, Mr. Martin is all in the right, with Mrs. Barrows all in the wrong.

The theme that unfolds under this examination of the facts may be expressed as Bold Woman against Mild Man or in this sentence, which contains a Biblical allusion: Meek and mild man shall inherit the earth to the exclusion of loud and aggressive woman.

Somewhere in the back of his mind a vague idea stirred, sprouted. "For heaven's sake, take off those gloves," said Mrs. Barrows. "I always wear them in the house," said Mr. Martin. The idea began to bloom, strange and wonderful.

If we analyze the facts of the story, we can see that this theme is represented throughout as Mr. Martin silently clashes with Mrs. Barrows while using his quiet inner strength to plot and plan to withstand her. In the end, his first plan doesn't succeed, but the plan that comes to him on the inspiration of an instant does succeed in "the rubbing-out of Ulgine Barrows" though in an altogether different manner from what he first imagined. He, meek and mild yet powerfully intelligent and inspired, is triumphant, while she, loud and domineering yet inferior and inadequate, is vanquished.

"So, Martin, I am afraid Mrs. Barrows' usefulness here is at an end." "I am dreadfully sorry, sir," said Mr. Martin.

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How does James Thurber use humor in "The Catbird Seat"?

In the story, Thurber uses humor to highlight the war between the sexes. He also uses humor to make another point: human beings are more complex than conventions allow. By using humor, Thurber gently demolishes stereotypes about "strong" males and "weak" females.

Certainly, Mrs. Ulgine Barrows is far from a weak female. In fact, she is the epitome of the old "battle-ax." She is domineering, fierce, and utterly intimidating. Even her words drive fear into the hearts of her male peers. Thurber portrays Mrs. Barrows as a bully who delights in firing off a litany of obscure idiomatic expressions at anyone she deems incompetent. The effect makes us smile, and Thurber cleverly manages to drive home his point: women may be known as the weaker sex, but they're hardly passive creatures.

On the other hand, Mr. Martin is mild, phlegmatic, and overwhelmingly passive. He despises Mrs. Barrows but takes special pains to hide his true feelings from everyone.

Mr. Martin may be physically inconspicuous, but he's certainly not simple-minded. Underneath the submissive exterior lies a quick mind accompanied by an over-active imagination. It is this over-active imagination that provides much of the humor in the story.

Already a precious week had gone by. Mr. Martin stood up in his living room, still holding his milk glass. "Gentlemen of the jury," he said to himself, "I demand the death penalty for this horrible person."

"Here's nuts to that old windbag, Fitweiler," he said, and gulped again... "I am preparing a bomb," said Mr. Martin, "which will blow the old goat higher than hell...I'll be coked to the gills when I bump that old buzzard off."

Certainly, Mr. Martin's little act has disconcerted Mrs. Barrows. She really believes that he's going to kill off their employer. But, we readers are in on Mr. Martin's secret, and we know that Mrs. Barrows will soon have a taste of her own medicine. Here, it's important to note that experts have often accused Thurber of misogyny. Yet, if we read the story closely, we discover that men aren't portrayed any more positively than women. In fact, men like Mr. Martin, Mr. Brundage, Mr. Bartlett, and Mr. Munson demonstrate not power, but impotence.

None of the men who are fired contest their arbitrary dismissals. Later, Mrs. Barrows herself loses her job at Mr. Fitweiler's firm. Like the men, she becomes an impotent character, suddenly unable to defend herself against unfounded allegations about a "persecution complex." Thurber uses humor to point out that helplessness often encompasses the human experience and neither gender is immune from its touch. The humorous story also turns on its head the very definition of strength.

Despite his outward impotence, Mr. Martin manages to outsmart Mrs. Barrows. And, despite her overpowering nature, Mrs. Barrows fails to secure her future at Mr. Fitweiler's firm.

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How does James Thurber use humor in "The Catbird Seat"?

Hopefully, you, too, will find James Thurber's "The Catbird Seat" as hilarious as I have always found it. Perhaps the comic irony that Thurber utilizes is the story's strongest point. In the end, the weakest character wins out over his formidable nemesis in a battle of wits between the sexes. Erwin Martin is a typical milquetoast Thurber character: meek, mild and set in his ways. Ulgine Barrows is a woman with strong, masculine traits: She is "profane," drinks and loves baseball, unlike Martin, who is a milk drinker with little or no interest in sports. Their role reversal adds to the comic element. The fact that Martin suddenly changes his plans--from killing her to merely setting her up--is an unexpected twist that even Martin didn't expect. His transformation before Mrs. Barrow's eyes into a smoking, drinking, bomb-making doper is hilarious, as is the finale, when their boss assumes that the woman must be crazy to make such incredible assertions about the forever-bland Martin. 

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What are the strategies that James Thurber used in the short story, "The Catbird Seat"?

Erwin Martin has decided to kill his nemesis and fellow employee, Ulgine Barrows, in James Thurber's short story, "The Catbird Seat." The two characters are polar opposites: Barrows is loud, conniving, manipulative and megalomaniacal; she also smokes and drinks. Martin is quiet and unassuming, whose strongest drink is milk. He shows up at Ms Barrows' apartment ready to fulfill his goal, but he has not decided how to do so. He has no weapon nor a plan. But, when she offers him a drink and a cigarette, a plan suddenly emerges. He smokes, drinks, threatens to bomb and kill his boss, and promises to do it while "coked to the gills." Barrows throws him out and then tells their boss the story the next day. It is just what Martin has planned.

Thurber's strategy of reversing the gender roles--Barrows is the more masculine of the two, while Martin is the more submissive--eventually works in Martin's favor. Thurber's other strategy concerns the traditional behavior of the individual. When Barrows tells Mr. Fitweiler, her boss, the outrageous story, the boss refuses to accept it. Since Martin has been with the company for 22 years and has settled into a specific routine with definitive and unchanging mannerisms, Fitweiler cannot believe the scandalous accusations presented by Ms Barrows, a relatively new employee. He feels that Martin is incapable of such actions--exactly the plan that Martin concocts on the spur of the moment. 

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How does James Thurber use humor in "The Catbird Seat"?

James Thurber uses identity to shape the story "The Catbird Seat" by establishing the stock characters of the timid put-upon man and the loud obnoxious woman who bullies him. In what may be Thurber's best-known story, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," these two archetypes are married to each other. In "The Catbird Seat," they work together, and Mrs. Burrows is attempting to reorganize the files to which Mr. Martin has devoted so much time and attention.

The conflict over the files is trivial, so the story relies for its effect on the larger conflict between their contrasting identities, which Thurber builds up skilfully, beginning with their names. Erwin Martin sounds weak, with its awkward rhyme and its interchangeable first name and surname. Ulgine Barrows sounds coarse and ugly. The first name appears to be selected as a particularly disagreeable sound, while the surname recalls barrow boys and wheelbarrows, large inelegant vessels shoving people out of the way, which exactly describes Mrs. Barrows's conduct towards Mr. Martin.

Throughout the story, Thurber continues to add to the conflicting identities of the main characters with small details. Mr. Martin drinks a glass of milk ("He had never drunk anything stronger in his life") as he reviews his grievances against Mrs. Burrows. Mrs. Burrows uses the strange, masculine phrases of a football fan:

Are you lifting the oxcart out of the ditch? Are you tearing up the pea patch? Are you hollering down the rain barrel?

It is in the clash between these two identities, and the surprising victory of the weaker one, that the drama and the comedy of the story lie.

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What are three types of humor used in James Thurber's "The Catbird Seat"?

One type of humor that James Thurber uses in his 1942 short story is irony. The protagonist, Mr. Martin, contemplates his plan to "rub out" Ulgine Barrows, but he goes about it in a fair-minded manner. "He must keep his mind on her crimes as a special adviser, not on her peccadillos as a personality," he reasons. It is ironic and humorous that he feels that he must not condemn Ulgine Barrows for her personality even as he plots her murder.

Another type of humor that Thurber employs is the use of colorful colloquialisms. They are part of what Mr. Martin finds irritating about Ulgine Barrows. She delivers, in a voice humorously likened to a donkey, zingers such as

Are you tearing up the pea patch? Are you hollering down
the rain barrel? Are you scraping around the bottom of the pickle barrel?

The reader understands that while Barrows may be annoying, her questions are harmless and funny in the way that she phrases them.

A third way that Thurber injects humor into the story is through his use of incongruity in characterizing Mr. Martin. He literally drinks only milk and has cultivated a persona at work as a serious-minded employee who focuses on detail. When he shows up at Ulgine Barrows's apartment and drinks Scotch, smokes a cigarette, and tells her that he is a heroin addict who plans to kill Mr. Fitweiler, it is a hilarious incongruity with the perception of who he is. It is a humorous turnabout when Ulgine Barrows is not believed when she tells the truth about his behavior, and Mr. Martin is able to get rid of his nemesis without violence; in this way, Martin has indeed found himself in "the catbird seat."

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